Richard Atkins re-appointed FE commissioner for further 2 years

Richard Atkins has been re-appointed FE commissioner for a further two years, the Department for Education has revealed today.

The announcement, which comes two years after the former Exeter College principal took over the reins from Sir David Collins, follows an exclusive FE Week interview with the commissioner earlier this week in which he recapped on his role to date and how it has changed.

It’s a fixed term appointment from October 21 2018 to October 20 2020, and involves an ad-hoc time commitment for which he’s paid £800 per day.

Two of Mr Atkins’ deputies, Steve Hutchinson and Andrew Tyley, have also been re-appointed for a further two year period.

Skills minister Anne Milton offered her congratulations to Mr Atkins and the two deputies on their re-appointments. 

“Together they have made fantastic progress to drive improvements in the further education sector. I look forward to them building on this success,” she said.

Mr Atkins spoke to FE Week about the “encouraging” signs of improvement in the sector in 2017/18 – which is the first year since his role was extended to include more work with colleges at risk of failure, before they hit rock bottom.

“We reduced the number of interventions and we made good use of these diagnostic assessments – where we go to a college earlier to do a private intervention, share advice and make recommendations,” he said. 

As well as a decline in the number of colleges rated ‘inadequate’ there was an increase in the number of colleges going up from grade three to two – a number of which followed involvement by Mr Atkins and his team.

“That’s about the most rewarding work I do,” he said.

“If I can then look back a year on and think that that college is now in a safer sounder more stable position that’s really good news.”

He acknowledged the recent spate of high-profile interventions, as well as the number of leaders to have stepped down with immediate effect as a result.

“I’m not yet disheartened because it’s early in the year, let’s see what happens. Clearly if it continues at this pace and we have lots of serious interventions I’d be disappointed and concerned, and be reflecting on how we can do more to prevent them,” he said.

He also revealed that 36 colleges had been awarded a total of more than £5.5 million in the first round of the strategic college improvement fund, following on from the 14 colleges that received grants totalling £2 million in the pilot round earlier this year.

This is the fund that allows struggling colleges, with the support of a stronger institution, to gain extra cash to help them improve in specific areas.

The 36 successful colleges are expected to be named next week, when applications close for the second round of the fund. However, details about the projects will not be included.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it was “great to see” that Mr Atkins would remain as FE commissioner.

“Having someone with his level of experience can only be good for the sector,” he said.

“At a time of uncertainty in the political landscape, it’s good to have continuity and we look forward to continue working with him moving forward.”

Today’s announcement comes after Mr Atkins was quizzed over “serial offender” principals at last week’s Association of Colleges annual conference.

He was asked by a college chair if there was any mechanism to ensure that poor-performing leaders were held accountable for their failings.

Mr Atkins told the audience that the sector had always had a “very small number” of leaders “who have driven one college into the ground and then got a job somewhere else and done the same thing”.

“At the moment, I have powers of intervention and beyond that everything is essentially kind of persuasion and so on. People do move on.” 

One of the reasons for publishing intervention reports “when things have gone seriously wrong” was to “disclose serial offenders and make them known to the sector”, he said.

“If we intervene and publish that means my team thinks something very serious went wrong, probably involving a number of people, and I think that should be put in the public domain. I don’t think that should be swept under the carpet and if you put that in the public domain then we have a free press that does that.”

For more on our exclusive interview with Richard Atkins see this week’s upcoming edition of FE Week.